Monday, August 11, 2008

What message is your city telling you?

Paul Graham wrote a great essay a while back called "Cities and Ambition" that I've been meaning to blog on for quite a while. His basic theme is that each city has its own subtle message it's sending you about what's important and how you should direct your ambition.

Here are some of his examples:
  • New York: "You should make more money."
  • Boston/Cambridge: "You should be smarter." (or at least better read)
  • Silicon Valley: "You should be more powerful." (i.e. change the world)
"Cambridge as a result feels like a town whose main industry is ideas, while New York's is finance and Silicon Valley's is startups."
  • SF/Berkeley: "You should live better." (more conscientious, more civilized, better 'quality of life')
  • LA: "You should be more beautiful and famous."
  • DC: "You should know more important people."
  • Paris: "You should do things with more style."
  • London: "You should be more aristocratic." (higher class - although he says this signal is weaker than it used to be)
Moving on to key excerpts:
How much does it matter what message a city sends? Empirically, the answer seems to be: a lot. You might think that if you had enough strength of mind to do great things, you'd be able to transcend your environment. Where you live should make at most a couple percent difference. But if you look at the historical evidence, it seems to matter more than that. Most people who did great things were clumped together in a few places where that sort of thing was done at the time.
No matter how determined you are, it's hard not to be influenced by the people around you. It's not so much that you do whatever a city expects of you, but that you get discouraged when no one around you cares about the same things you do.
Because ambitions are to some extent incompatible and admiration is a zero-sum game, each city tends to focus on one type of ambition. The reason Cambridge is the intellectual capital is not just that there's a concentration of smart people there, but that there's nothing else people there care about more. Professors in New York and the Bay area are second class citizens—till they start hedge funds or startups respectively.
Eventually, he gets to his list:
So far the complete list of messages I've picked up from cities is: wealth, style, hipness, physical attractiveness, fame, political power, economic power, intelligence, social class, and quality of life.
He didn't mention any Texas cities, so, starting with that list, I thought I'd take my own shot:
  • Dallas: a tough one, but I think some combination of wealth, style, and social class. (see a discussion on Dallas here - hat tip to John)
  • Austin: an easy one, quality of life (i.e. "You should live better.")
  • Houston: so what about our little town of hard working engineers and entrepreneurs? The city of Canion, Cooley, DeBakey, and a gaggle of energy and real estate mavericks? Well, I think we can rule out style, hipness, physical attractiveness, fame, political power, intelligence, social class, and quality of life. Wealth, maybe a bit, but I think the primary one is economic power - "You should be a bigger player in business." (even the business of medicine) We don't seem to care too much whether you're an entrepreneur, developer, or top executive - just so long as you're a big shot. And if you're not a big shot, the message is to become one by whatever path necessary - whether on your own or through a large organization.
Maybe not the ideal message I'd choose (although not bad), but I think it's an accurate reflection of the culture of the city. What do you think? Let me know in the comments.

UPDATE 4/3/15: Interesting conversation with a friend - maybe "industriousness" is a better ambition message for Houston rather than "economic power", because it's more inclusive of people working hard in all sorts of endeavors, including nonprofits.  Credit to Anne Snyder for the insight.
UPDATE 8/13/15: The growing iconic status of the "Be Someone" bridge graffiti downtown is the perfect exemplifier of our message.

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At 8:12 PM, August 11, 2008, Blogger dave morris said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 8:13 PM, August 11, 2008, Blogger dave morris said...

While living in Spain for a year in college, I noticed that the only associations anyone really has to Houston worldwide is NASA (specifically the movie Apollo 13) and the med center.

So I would only add to Houston's message something about being modest or humble. It's a fantastic city to live in, full of culture and interesting things to do and see, but it's really a terrible city to visit for short period of time.

You really have to dig deeper to get the most out of Houston, and I think that's one of its stronger points.

At 8:46 PM, August 11, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You oughta be working on something bigger

At 9:15 PM, August 11, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a terrifically important thing to be talking about. I have been thinking about it in the past and I need to wait before answering, but as a Dallasite I can make one point for starters. A pithier way of summing up the ethos of Dallas' public class is, "Be impressive." And at the same time, it's worth mentioning that the message sent by the movers and shakers doesn't speak for the wrong side of the tracks, and only crosses over there very indirectly.

At 12:35 AM, August 12, 2008, Blogger JMW said...

Houston says to me:
"you get discouraged when no one around you cares about the same things you do."

At 8:12 AM, August 12, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Houston should be "Self Reliance and Individuality"

I love how the vast public is not all caught up in the image of the city and how everyone else perceives us.

I could care less if the rest of the US or World thinks of us as World Class or not. I rather have a city I like to live in and not one everyone outside of Houston thinks we should live in.

At 9:51 AM, August 12, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dallas: "You should be a classier dresser."
Austin: "You should live a morally superior lifestyle like me."
Houston: "You should let me live the way I want to."
Fort Worth: "My cow can kick your cow's ass." (Full disclosure: I'm a native of Cowtown)

At 10:14 AM, August 12, 2008, Blogger engineering said...

Perhaps the perception is different vs. sending the same message to all.
Living in different parts of the city gives us different messages - east side, Galleria, downtown, the villages, Heights, The Woodlands.
Also a person's perception might depend on his/her understanding of the city's culture. Include in your list Moscow, Shanghai, Rio, etc.
And perhaps Fort Worth has a better quality of life than Austin.
For sure, each city has its own and unique energy.

At 10:43 AM, August 12, 2008, Blogger Brian Shelley said...

Honestly I think that most of Houston is somewhat economically libertarian without even knowing it.

I see this as the typical Houston thinking:

Idealistic Dreamer - "Wouldn't it be great if we built huge civic project X?"

Average Houstonian - "Ya, that would be really cool."

Idealistic Dreamer - "We just need a small tax hike to pay for it."

Average Houstonian - "Oh, uh, couldn't you just cut some other spending to cover it."

Idealistic Dreamer - "Not really the city is already stretch pretty thin."

Average Houstonian - "Well then, I'm not really interested in that."

At 12:20 PM, August 12, 2008, Blogger Dan Piette said...

I have lived in Houston (off and on) for 28 years. In my mind, Houston says you can do anything at all if you have the ability and the persistence. I know people (different people) who have started non-profits aimed at helping inner city kids, started a mini-movie society, started oil companies, revived chemical companies, failed with software companies four time in four months and just keep coming back.

Houston says we don't care who your daddy is, we want to know what you can do and how fast you can get it done.

Houston says "We are a meritocracy. Show us your best"

I did not grow up here (I came right after college) but I truly love the opportunities that this cities offer to everyone - regardless of race, creed, or color.

At 5:32 PM, August 12, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"You should eat out more"

If I have to be serious though, I'd say that, relative to NYC or SF, let alone London or Paris, Houston and Dallas would have to get the same tagline, whatever you think it should be. Maybe one or two letters could be different...


At 11:01 AM, August 13, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...


That's a serious proposition. You know us Houstonians and Dallasites can't stand to be lumped to together. It'll probably break out into a intrastate civil war! LOL

At 2:36 PM, August 13, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Well, if you insist on red meat, Dallas can have "your hair should be bigger".

I still reject the overall premise. What a person says a city says about a city's message says more about the person than the city. It must, or we would all be agreeing about what each city says.

PG's programming books are magnificent and I enjoy his essays, but note that in this essay we learn that he just happens to live in the intellectual capital of the world...


At 3:20 PM, August 13, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dallasite again -

jt, yeah:

As Houstonian John Whiteside noted in the discussion on the Dallas tech site, 'I'd just note that there's also an element of "you can never leave, or things won't be right' up there [in urban New England]; it's very insular. Thus people say things like 'this is the intellectual capital of the world' without embarrassment." Moreover, the people who migrate there self-select to some extent along the lines of being able to feel it's a superior place without embarrassment: for my part, I lived five years in Cambridge, graduated and went to Houston.

At 3:05 PM, August 21, 2016, Blogger George Rogers said...

The message Houston sends is Make More Money, not Take More Money as in New York or most other cities.


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